Appeals Court Backs Immunity of Iowa Officer Who Stomped on Suspect’s Ankle

July 20, 2020

A Davenport, Iowa, police officer who stomped on the ankle of a suspect used unreasonable force but cannot be held liable for doing so, a federal appeals court ruled on July 9.

The 2015 stomp by officer Brian Stevens allegedly broke the ankle of suspect Juan Shelton, who was pinned down by five officers at the time.

Shelton had been wanted for a man’s beating at a Davenport strip club, and led officers on a chase in which he was armed.

Eventually officers caught him after a foot chase and pinned him down. As he refused to surrender his hands, Shelton was put in a chokehold that briefly made him unconscious, punched in the ribs, struck in the head by an officer’s radio and stomped on by Stevens.

He sued four officers involved alleging excessive force. A district judge ruled that all but Stevens enjoyed qualified immunity because their force was reasonable under the circumstances.

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Stevens also enjoys immunity and cannot be sued.

Stevens’ stomp was an unreasonable use of force on balance but it was a close call, Judge Steven Colloton wrote for a three-judge panel. Immunity protects officers from facing liability for “mistaken judgments in gray areas,” he wrote.

Stevens testified he wanted to “distract” Shelton while disputing his stomp was responsible for the broken ankle.

The issue of qualified immunity for police officers is being increasingly scrutinized in the wake of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in police custody. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, recently declined to take up several appeals challenging laws that shield police officers from immunity.

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